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Book Reviews

These are some reviews from a recent issue of The Civil War News:

 


Leeís Last Stand: Sailorís Creek Virginia, 1865

by Derek Smith. Illustrated, maps, index, 262 pp., 2002. White Mane Publishing, P.O. Box 708, Shippensburg, PA 17257, $29.95 plus shipping.



In recent years, the final campaign of the Civil War in Virginia has received a great deal of attention, with Jay Winikís best-selling April 1865 leading the way. While the pursuit of Leeís army by Grantís federals is certainly a compelling story, there have been few detailed tactical treatments of the combat that occurred during the pursuit and retreat.

The largest battle ó in terms of numbers engaged as well as in acreage involved ó was the battle of Sailorís Creek, fought on April 6, 1865. Sailorís Creek was an unmitigated disaster for Robert E. Leeís army, costing him 7,700 casualties he could ill afford, and prompting him to say, ďMy God! Has the army been dissolved?Ē His son, Maj. Gen. George Washington Custus Lee, was among the prisoners taken, as was Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell.

Other than the fine work by Chris Calkins, the tactical aspects of the battle of Sailorís Creek have received scant attention from historians.

Derek Smith has written a study of Sailorís Creek that promises much more than it delivers. Smith, a journalist by profession, has a smooth and easy writing style, meaning that the book is readable and pleasant enough, if a bit lightweight. If these were the only criteria by which books are reviewed, it would receive a stellar review. Sadly, though, many more factors come into play. Once those other factors are brought into the equation, this bookís many weaknesses become obvious.

First, and foremost, the author did virtually no research of his own. A review of his endnotes indicates that he relied almost exclusively on secondary sources. A review of the bibliography indicates that he did almost no primary source research of his own, and no primary source manuscript research at all. This means that Smith merely repackages and regurgitates the writings of other historians.

Important primary sources, such as Henry E. Tremainís The Last Days of Sheridanís Cavalry or Frederick C. Newhallís With General Sheridan in the Last Campaign Against Lee, written by two of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridanís staff officers, were not even consulted, even though both works contain detailed treatments of Sailorís Creek. Thus, those looking for new material or new insights will find none here, and would be better served to just read the other interpretations of the battle by the likes of Calkins.

More troubling is the fact that the maps in this book were lifted, verbatim, right out of Calkinsís excellent 1997 book, The Appomattox Campaign: March 29-April 9, 1865. There is no indication that any changes were made, or that anything at all was done other than to photocopy the maps right out of Calkinsís work. That a publisher would allow this is nothing short of appalling. Finally, the book contains poor editing, awful production values, and poor overall quality.

In short, the author had an excellent opportunity to make a real contribution to the existing body of knowledge. If the reader is interested in the campaign, either go to the primary source materials such as Newhall and Tremain, or stick with known commodities such as Chris Calkins of Jay Winik. Donít spend your money here.



Eric J. Wittenberg

Eric J. Wittenberg is a cavalry historian who lives in Columbus, Ohio. His next book, An Infernal Surprise: The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads, March 10, 1865, will be published by Ironclad Publishing later this year.


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